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Spotlight on Anna Leenay: TGS Alum and Alumnae Graduate Fellowship Recipient

Modified: February 22, 2018

The 2018 Northwestern University Alumnae Graduate Fellowship is now open for applications. The Fellowship provides financial support to Northwestern alumni admitted to Northwestern master's programs. 

Anna Leenay, 2015 Recipient of the Northwestern University Alumnae Graduate Fellowship, graduated from Northwestern University in 2015 with an MS and BS in Environmental Engineering. Currently, Anna works as an Environmental Engineer at Jacobs (formerly CH2M), where she works mostly on remediation projects, which involve investigating, remediating (removing pollution), and monitoring of contaminated sites. Most of the sites on which she has worked were once, or are currently, manufacturing or chemical plants or US military bases. Anna shared insights into her important work, her experiences in graduate school, and how receiving the Alumnae Graduate Fellowship impacted her career trajectory:

What is your day-to-day work like?

My job is broken down into two main parts: the time I am “in the field,” and the time I am working from the office. Once every few weeks I go to one of our sites for 3-10 days to help the company answer a question that can’t be calculated or modeled. Usually, this involves collecting samples of different environmental media (groundwater, surface water, air, soil) to determine the nature and extent of the contamination, and its change (if any) over time. When I’m in the office, I am generally writing up reports for our clients of the work we’ve done at the site, which includes analyzing the long-term data to determine the efficacy of the remediation strategy. And making a lot of Excel tables. I’m also newly branching into the water-engineering group, and hopefully will be working more in modeling water and wastewater piping systems for improvement projects for my local water authority.

What is one particularly interesting project you’re working on?

I spent the better part of last autumn at a Superfund Site in Evansville, Indiana. Multiple manufacturing companies dating as far back as the 1880’s have left much of the soil in the area contaminated with lead and arsenic, including in residential backyards. The remediation process for sites like this essentially involves digging out the contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil. My primary role in this project was traveling to the site and sketching the yards of homes that had elevated lead levels and could be remediated. Though this isn’t the most technically interesting project I’ve worked on, I enjoyed directly interacting with the people who have been affected and being able to help them understand the site background, remediation efforts, and their agency in the process.

Please tell us about your graduate work in non-specialist terms.

Most of the classes in my Master’s in Environmental Engineering program had a strong focus on water, specifically how contaminants move throughout an aquatic environmental system. I also received a certificate in global and ecological health engineering, for which I traveled to the Thar Desert in Northwest India to work with a local nonprofit on their initiatives to increase access to potable water in the surrounding rural areas. There, another student and I constructed and tested an innovative solar disinfection device for drinking water and designed and conducted a series of experiments to determine if a novel method of microbiological data collection would be operative where access to incubators, sterile laboratories, and trained personnel are not readily available.

How do you draw on your graduate training in your current role?

Though I don’t always use a lot of the techniques or equations that I learned in grad school, having a deeper understanding of how contaminants might migrate throughout a site or chemically break down, as well as of the regulatory framework that drives most of the work we do, has helped me catch up on the projects that we work on much faster. I would say the primary impact of grad school on my career is the soft skills that I learned in graduate school, such as cultural sensitivity and working on diverse teams, confidence in my problem solving, and the organizational ability to meet numerous simultaneous deadlines from multiple people. 

What advice would you give your graduate student self?

  • Try as many new things as you can, all the time, even if they don’t seem like they will be relevant to your future career or build your resume. If you’re passionate, they’re worthwhile.
  • Don’t let your hobbies, mental health, or personal relationships fall to the wayside because you’re stressed or busy. You are the type of person that will always be stressed out. Accept it and learn to make time.
  • Take the opportunity to connect more with professors and reach out to NU alumni as much as you can. Even just to ask for an informational interview; they’re not scary. (Our Northwestern and Northwestern Network Mentorship Program are great resources for this).

How did the Alumnae Graduate Fellowship impact your education and career?

Aside from the clear benefits of avoiding debt and being able to save that much sooner, the Graduate Alumnae Fellowship provided me with confidence. At a time of insecurity and change (my senior year of college), receiving this fellowship felt like an affirmation of my values and ideas for my anticipated non-traditional engineering career path. For that, I will definitely always be grateful.

What is next for you? Where do you hope to be in 5, 10 years?

I hope to continue developing a variety of technical, analytical, and interpersonal skills related to remediation of green and blue spaces and protection of water resources before moving into a more impactful role with some experience behind me.  I’m extremely interested in environmental justice, so maybe I’ll work for a nongovernmental organization in a community subject to water contamination and offer them technological expertise and leverage to enable them to reclaim their rights to natural resources and public health. Or, perhaps I’ll work alongside an environmental or environmental justice law firm that’s working on these issues, and help analyze data or understand the environmental effects of a certain contamination issue.

To learn more about the Northwestern Alumnae Graduate Fellowship, visit this page